Ater calls for Vidalia Square investigation

Published 12:54 am Wednesday, August 5, 2015

VIDALIA — Former Secretary of State Al Ater announced Tuesday evening his intention to call for federal, state and local investigations of the possible sale of land for the Square on Carter project.

In a statement released Tuesday night, Ater said he believes the project is a conspiracy led by Mayor Hyram Copeland to justify the City of Vidalia’s purchase of land owned by City Engineer Bryant Hammett.

Copeland and Hammett were both members in a four-person partnership that bought 33 acres across the highway from Walmart in 2006. Copeland and two of the other partners eventually sold out, and the land is now owned by Hammett and Brad Dutruch of Baton Rouge.

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The Square on Carter project — which would include the purchase and development of the land in question for resale to developers — was first unveiled in March, though the Vidalia board of aldermen had given the go-ahead for a $7 million bond application for the project in February.

State Treasurer John Kennedy eventually shelved that application in late June after the state bond commission received legal advice from its attorney that the project might not meet constitutional muster. The city has applied for the bonds a second time, this time through an economic development district the aldermen created last year instead of directly through the city. The aldermen also serve as the governing board for the district.

The economic development district is seeking an August hearing before the bond commission.

Ater, who spoke out against the project at a bond commission hearing in May, said Tuesday he believes the alleged conspiracy involved, “hiring consultants, appraisers and others to justify the city buying the property for far above fair market value at roughly a $2.7 million dollar profit.”

A recent public auction saw an adjacent property receive a single bid of approximately 30 percent less per acre than the projected value of the property, Ater said.

Ater likewise contended Tuesday that if the property is key to the city’s growth as some have contended, Copeland was malfeasant in his purchase of the land.

“(He) committed malfeasance in office by buying it personally to try and make a profit for himself, the city engineer and (former partner and Riverfront Director HL. Irvin),” Ater said. “Copeland should have bought it for the city for $2.7 million dollars less at the time of original purchase if it was always intended to be the key to the city’s future. Only after the land was regarded unprofitable and three partners were forced to leave the partnership due to financial reasons was the property deemed the key to the city’s future.”

Ater said his call for an investigation is not part of a personal vendetta and he is not representing anyone.

“This is not about anything other than good public policy,” he said. “This (purchase) is horrendous public policy.”

Copeland did not answer his phone Tuesday evening and did not return a message seeking comment.